Thursday, October 30, 2008

childlike tat-awe

My Mom sometimes takes care of an adorable five-year-old by the name of Bryan. He's an outgoing one for sure, always chattering to himself or whoever cares to listen. He and his mother came over this afternoon for pizza, and in between all the grown-up talk about the upcoming election and such he would politely interject from time to time with "Um, esscuse me..." I would look over at him, and each time he would point to a body part of mine and ask, with the most adorably inquisitive expression, "Whass that?" First it was my hair, which is currently a mix of light brown, blonde, and highlighter pink. In response to his question I answered, "That's my real hair, it's pink!" My Mom quickly added "She did it for Halloween, Bryan." I was irritated at her attempt to downplay the true normalcy of this look for me. I don't think she was embarrassed, as Bryan's mother is a good friend of hers and a pretty open-minded one at that, but she couldn't help saying something to quell Bryan's curiosity and hopefully end his close investigation of my unconventional bodily adornments.
When I first came into the room I had tried to hide my septum ring but was too late. Bryan's extraordinarily observant gaze was apparently drawn toward the jewelry before I could get a chance to hide it, and his second inquiry needed no verbal expression. As I was listening to my mother and her friend chat I noticed that Bryan was trying his darndest to sneak a peek up my schnoz. "Are you looking for my nose piercing?" I asked him, as I flipped it out. He simply stared in shock, apparently not knowing how to express his amazement at my trick, not knowing what to ask first. After a few seconds his gaze shifted slightly downward, invoking another "Whass that one?" "That's my lip ring," I explained, "and it's just like Mary's earrings, but on my lip." It was a lot harder to explain mods to a child than I had ever expected. My mother had always warned me that I'd be sorry when I had to explain my mods to my kids, but I really didn't anticipate that doing so would be such a delicate task. I didn't want to promote mods too heavily as not to betray any wishes Bryan's Mom has to keep him away from modding, but I also didn't want to sell out and simply play them off as "nothing." I found a middle road by comparing my mods to a "normal" cultural phenomenon (ear piercing), one that Bryan surely encounters every day and thus no longer asks about. This way of dealing with his interrogation got me thinking - Bryan's choice of questions is a testament to the power of social conditioning to turn an arbitrary difference (piercing of the ear vs. the nose or lip) into a significant one. My job used to allow nose studs but not lip piercings and after questions about the difference came up they were forced to ban all visible piercings other than those on the ear. They didn't have an answer as to why one type of facial piercing was more acceptable than another because they surely had never taken the time to consier the question themselves. They've simply been conditioned to see nose studs as a socially acceptable and quite mainstream adornment, and thus appropriate for a restaurant server to sport. The unwritten rules of society blow my mind sometimes. And what's worse than the rules themselves is that we rarely realize how much our perceptions are shaped and skewed by them. Sometimes it takes the extraordinarily pliable mind of a child to remind us how much of what we know has been taught rather than proven.

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